Lepidoptera Facts Structure And Life-history Of The Lepidoptera

The word Lepidoptera, which you see at the head of this page, is the name of the order of insects to which this volume is to be devoted. It is formed from two Greek words, one (lepis) signifying a scale, and the other (pteron) denoting a wing; and was applied by the great naturalist Linnaus to the scaly-winged insects popularly known as Butterflies and Moths.

Scales from the Wings of Butterflies Fig. 1.-Scales from the Wings of Butterflies.

Every one of my readers has undoubtedly handled some of the interesting creatures of this group-having been led to do so either by the extreme beauty of their clothing, or, perhaps, from a murderous intent in order to protect his own garments from the ravages of a supposed marauder. A light mealy powder will probably have been observed afterwards on the fingers that have touched the victim’s wings.

This powder, although it sometimes presents a beautiful glossy surface when spread over the skin, does not exhibit any definite form or structure without a more minute examination. Yet these are the scales that led the immortal naturalist to invent the somewhat long but useful term Lepidoptera.

The very next time the opportunity offers itself, dust off a little of the mealy powder with a small and very soft brush on to a strip of white paper or a slip of glass, and examine it with a powerful lens or the low power of a compound microscope. What a sight you will then behold! Each little particle of dust is a beautifully formed scale, stamped with a number of minute rounded projections, and often displaying the most gorgeous colours. A great variety of designs and tints are often exhibited by the ‘dust’ from a single wing. Take, for instance, for your inspection, scales from the wing of one of our commonest insects, the Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Butterfly PicturePlate III), and you will be surprised at the pleasing contrasts. But when your curiosity leads you to deal with others in the same manner, the varied display of forms and colours is simply amazing.

Wing of a Butterfly Fig. 2.-Portion of the Wing of a Butterfly from which some of the scales have been removed.

In order that we may learn still more of the structure of the wings of the Lepidoptera, we will examine a portion of one from which some of the scales have been removed, again bringing the lens or the microscope into our service. We now see that the scales are arranged in rows with great regularity on a thin and transparent membrane, which is supported by a system of branching rays. And the membrane itself, in parts which have been laid bare, is marked with regular rows of dots-the points at which the scales were originally attached by means of short hollow rods.

The framework that supports the thin membrane we have spoken of as consisting of a system of rays, but to these the terms veins, nerves, nervures, or nervules are more commonly applied by various naturalists. We cannot do better, however, than adhere to the name originally used, for the structures in question do not perform the functions of veins, though at first they contain blood, nor are they themselves parts of the nervous systems of the insects to which they belong.

The result of our examination of the wings of butterflies and moths has been to justify the application of the term Lepidoptera; but we must now study other equally important and interesting features of the structure of these insects. First, let us note the general form of the body.

A cursory glance at this portion of the creature’s anatomy will show that it consists of three distinct and well-defined parts. In front there is the head, the size of which is somewhat small in proportion. Two very large eyes make up the greater portion of its bulk. It is remarkable, too, that butterflies possess eyes proportionately much larger than those of moths. Now, since butterflies always fly by day, and moths are, generally speaking, nocturnal insects, we might be led to suppose that the reverse of this arrangement would have suited the creatures better; for a small eye, we should think, would be able to collect sufficient light in the daytime to form a bright image, and a larger light-receiving area would be necessary during the darker hours for the same purpose. But it is evident that the sense of vision must depend on other conditions besides the size of the eye; and as these conditions are not understood in relation to the eyes of insects, any attempt at an explanation would be quite useless.

Body of a Butterfly-Under Side Fig. 3.-Body of a Butterfly-Under Side.

1-7, segments of the abdomen;
8, anal extremity;
a, antenna;
b, tarsus;
c, tibia;
d, femur;
e, palpi;
f, head;
g, thorax.

The eye of a butterfly or moth is worthy of a closer examination, for it is a most beautiful and marvellous structure. The outer globular transparent membrane-the cornea-is divided into a large number of minute polygonal facets, each one of which admits light into a small conical compartment surrounded by a coloured membrane, and supplied with a fibre of the nerve of vision (the optic nerve). Hence the eye is often spoken of as compound.

If you look closely into the eyes of various butterflies and moths you will generally see a ground colour of grey, blue, brown, or black; but when viewed at certain angles in a strong light the most gorgeous hues of metallic brilliancy-gold, copper, and bronze-are to be observed. All such colours are due to the reflection of light from the colouring matter that lies between the numerous conical compartments.

Section of the Eye of an Insect Fig. 4.-Section of the Eye of an Insect.

A glance at the section of a compound eye will show you that all the little cones radiate from a common centre. And, as each little compartment is surrounded by opaque colouring matter, it is clear that perpendicular rays only are capable of penetrating to its base and exciting the nerve fibre that lies there. Thus each little division of a compound eye forms its own image of the object that happens to be exactly opposite its facet. But how many facets do we find in a single eye? Sometimes only a few hundreds, but sometimes as many as seventeen or eighteen thousand! We must not, however, conclude that the nature of the vision of butterflies and moths is necessarily very different from our own. We have two eyes, but the images formed by them are both blended, so that we do not see double. We can understand, therefore, that the thousands of images formed in a single eye may be blended together so as to form one continuous picture. Still there remains this difference: while in our own case the two images formed by the two eyes are practically the same, in the case of insects every one of the little conical tubes of a compound eye forms an image of an object that cannot possibly be formed by any one of the others. Thus, if the lepidopterous insect sees a continuous picture of its surroundings, such a picture is produced by the overlapping and blending, at their edges, of hundreds or thousands of distinct parts.

There is yet another interesting difference between the vision of these insects and that of ourselves. As already stated, our two eyes are both turned toward the same point at the same time. But look at the butterfly’s eyes. Here are no movable eyeballs, and the two eyes, placed as they are at the sides of the head, are always turned in opposite directions. The cornea, too, are very convex; and consequently the range of vision is vastly wider than ours. A boy is often easily surprised by a playmate who approaches him stealthily from behind, but did you ever try the same game with a butterfly?

Antenna of Butterflies Fig. 5.-Antenna of Butterflies.

I have, many a time. After getting cautiously so near to a butterfly at rest as to be able to distinguish between its head and its hinder extremity, I have quietly circled round it so as to approach it from behind, being at the time under the impression that it wouldn’t see me under those circumstances. But not the slightest advantage did I derive from this stratagem, for the position and construction of its eyes enabled it to see almost all ways at once.

In addition to the two compound eyes, the Lepidoptera, or at least most of them, are provided with two small simple eyes; but these are generally so hidden among the closely set hair that covers the head, that it is doubtful whether they are of much service as organs of vision.

The antenna proceed from two points close to the upper borders of the eyes. They are jointed organs, and are of very different forms in the various species of Lepidoptera. They are generally long, slender, and clubbed at the extremity in butterflies, but exhibit several minor points of difference which we shall have to note later on. In moths the antenna are sometimes long, slender, and pointed. Some are thick, and more or less prismatic in form; while others are slightly or deeply pectinated or comb-like. The antenna of butterflies are always straight, or only slightly curved; and, although the insects can sway them bodily, they have no power to bend them, or to stow them away in any place of shelter. Moths, on the other hand, when at rest, are almost invariably found to have their antenna snugly tucked under the wings, and brought so closely against the side of the head for this purpose that even the uncovered portion is often difficult to find.

Antenna of Moths Fig. 6.-Antenna of Moths.

There are two other prominent appendages belonging to the heads of the Lepidoptera. These are the labial palpi or feelers of the lips. They are generally easily seen, projecting forward on the under side of the head, sometimes so long and conspicuous as to give one the idea of a snout or long nose. The palpi are jointed-usually in three parts-are covered with scales, and often furnished with hairs or bristles.

If you watch a moth or butterfly when it is feeding on the sweet juices of a flower, or on some kind of artificial sweet with which you have provided it, you will observe its long trunk or proboscis, by which food is sucked up. This instrument is so long and slender that it seems almost impossible that it can be a tube through which a liquid freely passes. But a careful examination will show that this is the case. It is composed of two separate pieces-two half tubes, which, when closely applied to each other, form a very thin and flexible pipe, perfectly air-tight and adapted for suction. Sometimes you can see a butterfly or moth manipulating with its proboscis as if it required readjustment in some way or other. It has split the tube throughout its length, so that it now looks like two exceedingly fine hairs. Then, after a short time, the two halves are put together again, and immediately, as if by magic, become a single tube in which no kind of seam is to be observed without a powerful magnifier.

Section of the Proboscis of a Butterfly Fig. 7.-Section of the Proboscis of a Butterfly.

In order to observe the nature of such a wonderful arrangement we must have recourse to the aid of a good microscope. Thus assisted, we can see at once how the junction of the two sides of the proboscis is brought about so quickly and so perfectly. The inner edges of each half are very regularly fringed with lines of closely set hairs-so regular, in fact, are they, that they give one the idea of long yet minute beautifully formed combs. When the two parts are brought together, the hairs of two opposite edges interlock, those on one side exactly filling the spaces between those of the other.

The microscope also reveals another interesting fact, viz. that the proboscis is not a single tube, but, although so remarkably thin, is really a set of three distinct pipes, one lying on each side of the central one. It is said that the central tube only is used for sucking up the liquid food, and there seems to be some doubt as to the uses of the other two. Some naturalists are of opinion that the latter are air tubes, and are connected with the respiration of the insect; while others say that through these the insects eject a thin watery fluid with which to dissolve or dilute those sweetmeats that are not sufficiently liquid to be readily sucked up. But possibly both these opinions are correct, the proboscis serving all three of the purposes here named. The only observation of my own bearing on the subject is this. While a moth was feeding on a drop of syrup in a strong light, a powerful lens revealed drops, of liquid, mingled with bubbles of air, passing alternately up and down the two lateral tubes of the proboscis. At the same time the upward current of syrup in the central tube was by no means steady and continuous.

When this organ is not in use, it is beautifully coiled into a close spiral which lies between the labial palpi. The length varies considerably in different insects, and consequently the number of turns in the spiral must differ also. Sometimes there are less than two turns, while some of the longer ones form spirals of from six to ten turns.

In concluding our brief account of the head of lepidopterous insects it is, I suppose, hardly necessary to add that there is no kind of chewing apparatus to be described; all the members of this order, at least in the perfect state, deriving the whole of the little nourishment they require entirely by suction through the proboscis or ‘trunk.’

The second division of the body is the thorax. This is much larger than the head, and consists of three ring-like segments, joined one behind the other so intimately that the lines of junction are hardly visible, even after the thick clothing of fine hair has been brushed off. Behind the thorax is the abdomen, which is composed of several segments, the junctions between the rings often being most distinct.

Diagram of the Wings of a Butterfly Fig. 8.-Diagram of the Wings of a Butterfly.

I. Fore wing.-1-5, subcostal nervules; 6, 7, discoidal nervules; 8-10, median nervules; 11, submedian nervure; 12, internal nervure; 13-15, disco-cellular nervules; 16, interno-median nervule; 17, median nervure; 18, subcostal nervure; a, costal nervure; b, costa or anterior margin; c, apex or anterior angle; d, posterior or hind margin; e, posterior or anal angle; f, interior or inner margin; g, base; h, discoidal cell.

II. Hind wing.-1, 2, subcostal nervules; 3, discoidal nervule; 4-6, median nervules; 7, submedian nervure; 8, precostal nervure; 9, subcostal nervure; 10, median nervure; 11, 12, disco-cellular nervules; a, costal nervure; b, costa or anterior margin; c, apex or anterior angle; d, hind margin; e, tail or caudal appendage; f, anal angle; g, abdominal or inner margin; h, base.

From the sides of the thorax proceed the two pairs of wings, the general structure of which we have already to a certain extent examined. But when we are a little farther advanced in our insect studies, we shall have to become acquainted with detailed descriptions given as aids to the identification of species. Now, such descriptions cannot be satisfactory, either to the one who gives or to him who receives, unless expressed in such definite terms as render a misunderstanding impossible. A botanist cannot give an accurate and concise description of a flower without the use of certain names and expressions which have gradually become an almost necessary part of his vocabulary; neither can an entomologist give a really useful, and, at the same time, a succinct description of an insect unless he is acquainted with the names of its parts. Therefore, seeing that we distinguish the various species of butterflies and moths mainly by the arrangement and colour of the markings of their wings, it is really necessary that we should know the names of the different parts of these organs. For this reason I have inserted drawings of a fore and of a hind wing of a butterfly, together with the names of the various parts of the wings, and also the names of the principal rays or nervures. Yet I would not advise any young entomologist to attempt to commit to memory all the names given. Rather use the diagram for reference when occasion requires, more particularly when you have an insect in your possession that you desire to study. In ordinary descriptions of butterflies and moths the names of the nervures are not so generally used as those of the parts of the wing. Consequently it is exceedingly useful to know what is meant by the terms base, costal margin, apex, hind margin, anal angle, inner margin, discoidal cell &c. as applied to the wing.

The two pairs of wings are attached to the second and third segments of the thorax; but of the three pairs of legs, which we have next to consider, one pair arises from each of the three segments.

All insects, in their perfect state, we are told, have three pairs of legs; but if you examine the under surface of certain butterflies, such as the Marbled White, or any of the Vanessas, Browns, or Heaths, it is quite likely that you will raise objection to such a statement; for in these you may possibly see only four legs. But this is the result of a too cursory observation. Look a little more closely at your specimen, and you will see a pair of smaller legs folded up under the fore part of the thorax. By means of a blunt needle you can straighten out these limbs, and then the difference in length to be observed between them and the other four is very striking indeed. They are also thinner than the middle and hind legs; and, unlike these, are not provided with claws.

The Undeveloped Fore Leg of a Butterfly Fig. 9.-The Undeveloped Fore Leg of a Butterfly.

These imperfectly developed legs are, of course, quite useless as far as walking is concerned; indeed, it is extremely doubtful as to whether they are of any service whatever to the owner. On one occasion, however, while watching a Peacock Butterfly apparently engaged in cleaning its divided proboscis, I observed that this organ was frequently passed under the thorax, and that the front pair of legs were pressed against it on each side, while it was being drawn outward between them. It is probable, therefore, that these limbs constitute a pair of brushes by means of which the fine grooves of the divided trunk are cleared of any solid or sticky matter that may lodge therein. It is certain that moths, and those butterflies that possess six equal legs, use the front pair for this same purpose. The former, also, employ them for brushing their antenna, which seem to be, by the way, particularly sensitive to different kinds of irritation.

It is a well-known fact that tobacco smoke has a powerful influence on certain small insects; and even though it can hardly be regarded as a perfect all-round insecticide, it is certainly more or less objectionable to the larger and hardier species. A short time since, while watching a number of newly emerged moths of the Sphinx group, and at the same time enjoying the solace afforded by the luxurious weed, a puff of the smoke was accidentally allowed to play into the box in which my pets were for the time imprisoned. Immediately they rubbed their front legs vigorously over the antenna, as if to remove the obnoxious irritant that had thus intruded on their presence. Similar observations have led many naturalists to suppose that the antenna are the seat of various senses, such as those of touch, hearing, and smell. Seeing that insects do not, as far as we know, possess special organs for all the five senses which we enjoy (and it is interesting to note here that some insects certainly experience other sensations which are quite beyond our ken), we can quite understand the common tendency to locate the seats of certain of the senses in such easily affected parts as the antenna. But little, I believe, has been definitely proved save that the antenna are sensitive to touch and to irritants generally.

While speaking of the senses of insects, I cannot refrain from mentioning a most remarkable example of a peculiar sensitiveness that has been observed in certain moths of the family Bombyces notably the Oak Eggar, the Emperor, and the Kentish Glory. Take a newly emerged female of either of these species, shut her up in a small box, conceal the box in your pocket, and then walk about in some country spot known to you as being one of the haunts of that species of moth. Then, if any of the males of the same species happen to be in the neighbourhood, they will settle or hover about close to the female which, although still concealed and quite out of their reach, has attracted them to the spot.

What a marvellously acute sense this must be, that thus enables the insects to scent out, as it were, their mates at considerable distances, even when doubly surrounded by a wooden box and the material of a coat pocket! You would naturally expect that entomologists have turned this wonderful power to account. Many a box has been filled with the beautiful Kentish Glories of the male kind, who had been led into the snare by the attractions of a virgin Glory that they were never to behold. Many an Emperor has also been decoyed from his throne to the place of his execution, beguiled by the imaginary charms of an Empress on whom he was never to cast one passing glance. And these and other similar captures have been made in places where, without the employment of the innocent enchantress, perhaps not a single male could have been found, even after the most diligent search.

Speaking of this surprising sense, I am again tempted to revert to the antenna; for it is a remarkable fact that the males of those species of moths which exhibit the power of thus searching out their mates, are just those that are also remarkable for their very broad and deeply pectinated antenna-a fact that has led to the supposition that the power in question is located in the antenna, and is also proportional to the amount of surface displayed by these organs.

Up to the present time we have been considering the butterfly and moth in their perfect forms, but everybody knows that the former is not always a butterfly, nor is the latter always a moth; but that they both pass through certain preparatory stages before they attain their final winged state.

We shall now notice briefly what these earlier stages are, leaving the detailed descriptions of each for the following chapters.

The life of the perfect butterfly or moth is of very short duration, often only a few days, nearly the whole of its existence having been spent in preparing itself for the brief term to be enjoyed

… in fields of light,
And where the flowers of Paradise unfold.

It may be interesting to consider of what use the metamorphoses of insects are, and to what extent these metamorphoses render them fit for the work they have to do.

It is certain that the chief work of insects, taken as a whole, is to remove from the earth the excess of animal and vegetable matter. If they are to do this work effectually, it is clear that they must be very voracious feeders, and also be capable of multiplying their species prodigiously. Now each of these powers requires the special development of a certain set of organs, and an abnormal development of one set must necessarily be produced at the expense of the other. Hence we find insects existing in two distinct stages, with or without an intermediate quiescent state, during the first of which the digestive apparatus is enormously developed, while the reproductive organs occupy but very little space; then, during the other stage, the digestive apparatus is of the simplest possible description, and the organs of reproduction are in a perfect state of development.

Allowing, then, that the chief work of the insect is the removal of surplus organic matter, we can see that a large share of its life should be spent in the larval or grub stage, and that the perfect state need not occupy any more time than is necessary for the fertilisation of the eggs that almost completely fill the body of the female at the time of her emergence from the chrysalis shell.

Many insects undergo their metamorphoses by slow degrees, but the Lepidoptera, after existing for some considerable period without any important visible change in structure, pass by a rapid transition into the next state. Thus, a caterpillar, that has not altered in general form for several weeks, changes into a chrysalis within the course of a few days; and again, after a period of quiescence that may extend throughout the whole of the colder months, becomes a perfect butterfly or moth within twenty minutes of the moment of its emergence.

But this suddenness is more apparent than real, as may easily be proved by internal examinations of the insect at various stages of growth; showing that we are led astray by the rapidity of external changes-the mere moultings or castings of the skin-while the gradual transformations proceeding within are not so readily observed.

We have already said that the life of the perfect butterfly or moth is short. A few days after emergence from the chrysalis case, the female deposits her eggs on the leaves or stems of the plant that is to sustain the larva. Her work is now accomplished, and the few days more allowed her are spent in frolicking among the flowers, and sucking the sweet juices they provide. But males and females alike-bedecked with the most gorgeous colours and overflowing with sportive mirth when first they take to the wing-soon show the symptoms of a fast approaching end. Their colours begin to fade, and the beauty-making scales of the wings gradually disappear through friction against the petals of hundreds of flowers visited and the merry dances with scores and scores of playful companions. At last, one bright afternoon, while the sun is still high in the heavens, a butterfly, more weary than usual, with heavy and laborious flight, seeks a place of rest for the approaching night. Here, on a waving stalk, it is soon lulled to sleep by a gentle breeze.

Next morning, a few hours before noon, the blazing sun calls it out for its usual frolics. But its body now seems too heavy to be supported by the feeble and ragged wings, and, after one or two weak attempts at play, incited by the approach of a younger and merrier companion, it settles down in its final resting place. On the following morning a dead butterfly is seen, still clinging by its claws to a swinging stem, from which it is eventually thrown during a storm.

The tale of the perfect moth is very similar to the above, except that it is generally summoned to activity by the approach of darkness.

We see, then, that butterflies and moths exhibit none of that quality which we term parental affection. Their duty ends with the deposition of the eggs, and the parents are dead before the young larva have penetrated the shell that surrounds them.

Yet it is wonderful to see how unmistakably the females generally lay their eggs on the very plants that provide the necessary food for their progeny, as if they were not only conscious of and careful concerning the exact requirements of their offspring, but also possessed such a knowledge of botanical science as enabled them to discriminate between the plant required and all others.

Has the perfect insect any selfish motive in this apparently careful selection of a plant on which to lay its eggs? Does the female herself derive any benefit from the particular plant chosen for this purpose? In most cases, certainly not. For it often happens that the blossom of this plant is not by any means one of those that supply the sweets which insects love, and still more frequently does it occur that the eggs are deposited either before the flowers have appeared or after they have faded.

The Four Stages of the Large White Butterfly (Pieris Brassica) Fig. 10.-The Four Stages of the Large White Butterfly (Pieris Brassica).

a, larva; b, pupa; c, imago; d, egg.

Neither can we easily impute to the insect an acquired knowledge of the nature and wants of her offspring, or an acquaintance with botany sufficient to enable her to distinguish plant forms. Our only solution of the problem (which is really no solution at all) is to attribute the whole thing to that inexplicable quality which we are pleased to term natural instinct. It is to be observed, however, that it is not all butterflies and moths that display this unerring power. Some few seem to deposit their eggs indiscriminately on all kinds of herbage. But, I believe, the larva of these species are generally grass feeders, and would seldom have to travel far from any spot without meeting with an acceptable morsel.

But we must now pass on to a brief consideration of the other stages of the insect’s existence. After a time, varying from a few days to several months, the young caterpillars or larva make their appearance. They soon commence feeding in right earnest. Their period of existence in this state varies from a few weeks to several months, and even, in some cases, to years. During this time their growth is generally very rapid, and they undergo a series of moults or changes of skin, of which we shall have more to say in a future chapter. Then, when fully grown, they prepare for an apparently quiescent form, which we speak of as the pupa or chrysalis, and in which they again spend a very variable period, extending over a few days, weeks, or months. Now, inclosed in a protective case, each pupa is undergoing a remarkable change. Some of its old organs are disappearing, and others are developing; and, after all the parts of the future insect have been developed as far as its narrow shell will permit, it bursts forth into the world as a perfect insect or imago.

Its wings at first are small, shapeless, and crumpled in a most unsightly fashion; but it is not long before they assume their full size, beautiful form, and gorgeous colouring. Then, in about another hour or two, the wings, at first soft and flaccid, have become sufficiently dry and stiff to bear their owner rapidly through the air.

We have thus observed some of the more striking features in the structure of the butterfly and moth in its most perfect state; and alluded in a very brief manner to the various stages through which these creatures must necessarily pass before finally reaching this stage. But now we must study these earlier stages more closely, and watch the insects during the marvellous transitions they are destined to undergo. This we shall do in the following chapters.